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Einstein was born during the imperial era in Germany in 1879. He died 76 years later in Princeton, New Jersey exactly one decade after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. He thus witnessed the two world wars, the high point and demise of the old European order, and the rise of industrialization and new technologies such as telephones, automobiles, X-rays, and radioactivity. But Einstein himself inaugurated some of the most fundamental transformations of his age, including the rise of theoretical physics, the extension of Newtonian mechanics to the submicroscopic realm of atoms and nuclei, and the birth of relativity theory. Einstein was thus both a product and a shaper of the scientific and cultural context in which he lived and worked.

Einstein grew up during the years following the unification of Germany in 1871, a time of widespread growth in European industrial power, strong militaristic nationalism, and imperialist expansion. Technological advances led to a renewed faith in material progress, especially with the replacement of the old steam- and mechanically powered world with the new modern "electropolis." The rise of electric power challenged the reigning nineteenth-century mechanical worldview, which holds that all matter obeys Newton's laws of motion and that all natural phenomena arise from the interactions of moving matter. New advances in electromagnetic theory by nineteenth-century scientists such as Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell could not be explained in terms of the old mechanical picture, and physicists in Einstein's day were confronted with the challenge of finding a complete mechanical account of electrodynamic theory that was consistent with the Newtonian paradigm.

Einstein grew up as a Jew in time of rising anti-Semitism. The reverberations of the Dreyfus Affair in France spread across Europe in the 1890s and inspired early Zionist thinkers such as Theodore Herzl to work towards the creation of a Jewish state. In 1911, the headquarters of the Zionist movement relocated to Berlin, where Einstein was teaching. Thus in spite of his own disavowal of traditional religious rituals and traditions, Einstein became involved in one of the greatest movements in Jewish history. Einstein lived just long enough to witness the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948; he was even asked to be the president of the new nation in 1952, an offer he graciously declined.

Einstein's support of the Zionist movement was partially a response to the rampant anti-Semitism that spread across Germany with the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in January 1933. Under the infamous Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service of April 1, 1933, the Nazis excluded Jews from all state posts, including universities and other research institutions. Physics was one of the disciplines most devastatingly affected by this new law, suffering a loss of at least 25% of its 1932-33 personnel. Yet even before the 1930s, many academicians were increasingly suspicious of the high rate of Jewish participation in medicine and the natural sciences. This anti-Semitic sentiment was combined with a more general suspicion of the materialism and commercialism associated with science as a field. Hitler held mathematics and the physical sciences in low regard in comparison to those disciplines that promoted Kultur, man's humanistic achievements in society. Einstein, as a Jew and as a physicist, was one of the first targets of Nazi propaganda.

In contrast, in America, science enjoyed enormous prestige in the 1920s and 1930s; thus when Einstein arrived on a tour of the country in 1922, he was hailed as a hero. The 1920s witnessed the rapid growth of the physics community in America, including a rise in the numbers of Jews in the sciences, since science was one of the few fields that offered American Jews the opportunity for professional status in the gentile world. The 1920s and 1930s were also years of mass popularization and politicization of science. Thus, the arrival of refugees from Europe (such as Einstein) in the years immediately preceding World War II only served to strengthen what was already one of the strongest and most vigorous branches of the world physics community at the time.

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